Two African hunting dog puppies playing with the head of a baboon.

Ahead in the game by Nicholas Dyer. Highly commended 2018, Behaviour: Mammals.

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: ahead of the pack

Who wants to play? Breakfast for these African wild dog puppies quickly turns into an energetic ball game in a remarkable image from the 2018 Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.

Ahead in the game by Nicholas Dyer was highly commended in the Behaviour: Mammals category of the fifty-fourth Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. It shows the playfulness of the young pups, while documenting a seldom observed behaviour that contributes to our understanding of the species.

African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) are also known as painted wolves or painted hunting dogs.

Nick first got on the dogs' tail in 2013 in Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe, and has devoted much of the last six years to photographing the species in the area on foot.

The dogs are best known as a pack hunter of antelope such as impalas and kudus. However, out in the field in Mana Pools, Nick has observed numerous examples of wild dogs preying on chacma baboons.

He says, 'Witnessing this behaviour is incredibly rare. Some wildlife experts might even tell you that these dogs don’t prey on baboons.'

African wild dog puppies play in Mana Pools National Park. Image: Nicholas Dyer.

'On this particular morning I'd missed the kill but I caught up when the dogs stopped to share the meal with their young.

'After a while the boldest of the pups picked up the disembodied head of the baboon and started running around with it as if he'd won a famous prize.

'The others quickly decided this was a really good game, and then charged around for twenty minutes playing with the head.'  

Nick says that although it may be difficult to see the baboon suffer its fate, he feels the image captures the playfulness of the young dogs.

'There's humour in the image. It's just as if you saw two energetic puppies at home playing. The expression on the baboon's face almost says: ‘when you kids finish, could you kindly put me down.

'At one point one of the pups even came right up to me with the head, as if to ask me to join in. I always keep my distance and leave the dogs to it, but it was an extraordinary moment.'

In the pack

African wild dogs are highly social animals that can live in packs of more than 30 individuals.

The dogs in Mana Pools have become used to Nick's presence, and he has been able to document their complex relationships over time.

He says, 'I became fascinated with the bonds the dogs share.'

'They have a greeting ceremony twice a day when they wake up where they all jump up and play as if they’re so excited to see each other.

'The joy of the animals, their cohesion and social bonding is what led to me to want to know more about them.

Puppies follow the lead of an adult in Mana Pools. Image: Nicholas Dyer.

'After a while you get to know the characters. Some are lazy, some play the doctor and lick the wounded ones, and others are great hunters or babysitters.

'Once you recognise the dogs as individuals, you realise that every single one of them counts: there are only 6,500 of them left in the world.'

Under threat

African wild dogs are listed as an endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

They have disappeared from large swathes of their former range across Africa, and their population continues to decline in the face of threats including habitat fragmentation, conflict with humans and disease.

According to Nick, lack of awareness of the dogs is also contributing to their precarious situation.

He says, 'Everyone knows about the tiger, the elephant and the lion. No one knows these guys exist - they are really off the radar. That’s what’s fuelling my passion to do something about it with my photography.

'It's not a competition. None of this is about one single species – a good ecosystem is about balance, whether you support the elephants, the rhinos, the wild dogs. Even the termites and vultures play a vital role.'

The power of a photograph

Mana Pools is home to one of the most significant populations of African wild dogs left in the wild.

Nick says that the park's wildlife benefits from lower rates of human-animal conflict than other areas, and that conservation programmes there could lead the way to a brighter future for the dogs.

Nick developed an interest in conservation through his passion for photography, and set up the Painted Wolf Foundation with fellow conservationist Peter Blinston. The pair have recently produced a book to boost the profile of the species.

Nick believes photography is a powerful tool that can change attitudes and raise awareness of conservation issues.

A painted wolf puppy emerges from the depths of the den. Image: Nicholas Dyer.

He says, 'Being part of Wildlife Photographer of the Year now, when we're trying to raise the profile of the dogs, really feels like the universe is getting behind us and what we're doing.

'Visiting the exhibition is like receiving a gift – looking at those photographs in areas of the world that I’ve never been to, nor could ever get to, is a very powerful thing.'

'I hope my image shows people the dogs are worth saving.'

'If you get behind the animals it not only changes their lives, it also changes your life for the better.'

Support painted wolves

You can find out more about painted wolf conservation by visiting the Painted Wolf Foundation's website.

Nicholas Dyer and Peter Blinston's book, Painted Wolves: A Wild Dog's Life, is available to order now.

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